Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias, Lesvos, Greece. Syrians and Iraq refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias, Lesvos, Greece. Source: Ggia- Wikicommons / cropped form original / shared under license CC BY-SA 4.0

Hannah Cross sees the latest Tory bill as a further sign of the trashing of rights to refuge and argues that it must be resisted

The Tories have surpassed themselves this week with their brutal onslaught on the rights of refugees. They have been matched by Labour, whose main criticism of this attack appears to be that it could be carried out more efficiently if the opposition were in government, and by right-wing media attacks on the football commentator Gary Lineker, who dared to compare the Home Office’s language and policy on asylum with that of the Nazis after they came to power.  

In a Tory bill that the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) has described as a ban on asylum, the principle of refuge continues to be trashed, following a trend of its deep erosion and bursts of impunity across Europe. Despite the theatrics in Parliament, the two main parties have a consensus on the illegality of asylum seekers and the desire to close borders. 

The authoritarian drive of Blairism is evident in Yvette Cooper and other shadow cabinet members’ promises for more efficient controls, processing and removals, in the dehumanising vernacular that New Labour created when it was in government. They have responsibility for criminalising asylum seekers and for systematising and legitimising antimigrant hostility in the political centre, and in doing so, fuelling the far right. The would-be Conservative voters they are targeting will not be convinced by their ability to beat the Tories’ brutality. If you were to support these policies why not vote for openly racist far-right parties or the Tories? In addition, much of the labour movement that the Labour Party supposedly represents will vigorously defend the rights of refugees and migrants. But they are betting on election by default and will continue trying to convince target voters of their relative competence, reproducing the hostile environment as they do it. 

This ratcheting of right-wing ideas around the politics of migration is not new but has reached a new level with the refusal to give any refugees who arrive ‘illegally’ by boat any right to stay in Britain. Instead, they may be deported back to other countries that they have passed through or to Rwanda or could face forced labour conditions in the UK. 

The move this week by Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman to focus on immigration and promote a new and probably illegal law can be seen both as increasing racism in its own right (which it certainly will do) but also in trying to focus on an issue which is not the cost-of-living crisis that is leading to misery for so many. The hope of the government too is that this will weaken the growing movement of anger which has led to a major strike wave in recent months and will instead tempt workers to focus on refugees and asylum seekers as the cause of their suffering, rather than the real culprits in government and big business. 

The 100 million figure that Suella Braverman referred to as potential illegal entrants to the UK most likely originates in the UNHCR’s fast-growing count of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes – one person in every 78. The multiple and systemic crises of conflict, environmental destruction, land grabbing and resource extraction, uproot people’s lives and force them into an indefinite search for safety and stability. 

Those who are forced to flee these situations, often in dangerous conditions, all too often do not find this safety and stability. For the displaced people who cross international borders, no matter what country they find themselves in, Libya, Turkey, France or elsewhere, they are living in a police state without basic needs being met or adequate legal protections against state violence. This is why some of them search for any alternative, even the extremely dangerous one of setting sail in small boats. 

The political elite is not only disinterested in this failure of the world system but their policies of militarism and capitalist growth promise to actively create more violence, dispossession and displacement around the world and to accelerate the destruction of the planet. It is tragically clear now that they will choose bunkering to their last breath rather than mitigate the collapse. The electoral choice in the UK seems to be between the barbarism and venality of the Tories, or a Labour-right government whose endemic authoritarianism could prove just as dangerous and barbaric – and venal. 

The working class and labour movement needs an urgent response to this, which demands the end to these racist policies of scapegoating some of the most desperate and vulnerable people. It is conceited and insulting for Braverman to say the UK would be the top destination of the 100 million displaced people. The humiliation of risking imprisonment, destitution and death to bypass the controls of the most internationally oppressive countries is well-recognised among migrant communities that have lost the option to sustain a livelihood in safe circumstances.

Many of the issues forcing people to flee are directly or indirectly caused by the policies of governments such as Britain – think the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya – or by big business connected to them. They have the right to come here and to be treated as human beings. Anything else takes us further down the road to barbarism.

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